CONSIDERING that football in this country has sunk to the depths of despair, who would care for a Malaysian commentator’s opinions on the game? Would this person have the depth and knowledge to comment on a sport with such epic proportions and fanatic following?
Actually, yes. Serbgeth Singh, better known as Shebby Singh, is in his eighth season as a football analyst and commentator on the ESPN sports channel, based in Singapore. That’s right, all of Asia wants to hear what a Malaysian has to say about the beautiful game!
He is a pay TV fixture on match days, particularly during the English Premier League season and major tournaments such as the World Cup and the European Championship.
Malaysians may also remember Shebby as head coach of MyTeam, the football squad assembled for a reality TV show a few years ago.
With his insightful, analytical and critical views, presented in his “tell it as it is” style, Shebby has become a respected name among football fans. People stop the former national player in the streets all the time, seeking his opinions on the latest matches and tips on improving their skills.
For Shebby, who professes to never having a boring day in his life, it’s all about the passion for the game.
“Football is not predictable. It has evolved so much from 20 years ago. I am still a student of the game. My belief is that what I know, I share. What I don’t, I ask,” he says.
The pursuit of knowledge is almost an obsession for him. In his obituary, he wants a single word defining him – knowledgeable.
Humble roots and great mentors
Shebby, 48, cuts a striking figure at 1.8m tall. His yellow fitted jersey and shorts do nothing to hide his trim form. He actually looks ... cool.
Of course, it helps that he doesn’t smoke or drink. His exercise regime includes cycling and playing futsal. “I am a great futsal player,” he quips. “I take care of my body, and my body has also taken care of me.”
Born in Kluang, Johor, Shebby is the grandson of Sikh immigrants from Punjab, India. His early life was tough and hard work was a constant theme. But it wasn’t all work and no play.
As a scruffy seven-year-old, he got his first taste of football playing with the neighbourhood kids. He had the raw talent for the game. At 10, he was already competing in Under-12 state-level competitions. Then came a turning point a year later – Uncle Sarjit, a neighbour, lent him the autobiography of English footballer Ronnie Clayton.
(Clayton played for Blackburn Rovers from 1951 to 1969. He first played for the England side in 1955. The highlights of his international career included playing in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden and captaining the national team five times.)
“After reading that book, all I wanted to do was to play football. That book really inspired me,” Shebby recalls.
He got his big break at 15, when he was spotted by prominent footballers of yesteryears, Wong Ah Chew, Shatar Khan and the late Koh Poh Heng.
Seeing potential in the youngster, they invited him to train with them. “They sort of took me under their wing. Playing and training with older people made all the difference in my game. I am so lucky to have met them at such a young age,” says Shebby. By the time he was 18, Shebby was playing for Johor. After making his international debut in 1982, Shebby caught the eye of another mentor, S. Subramaniam, who was then coach of the Kuala Lumpur Football Association (KLFA) in 1983.
Subramaniam recruited Shebby as central defender for KL. “With Subra, I saw football from a whole new perspective. I learnt things that I didn’t even know existed about the game,” says Shebby.
And yet, there was more football wisdom to acquire, and the man who would help Shebby do this was Dr Josef Venglos, another KLFA coach. A former player and coach of the then Czechoslovakia, the experienced and well-travelled Venglos helped Shebby complete his education as a football player.
“He gave me the outlook on football from a global level. He thought me how to influence things on the pitch, how to improvise, innovate and analyse opponents,” says Shebby. “I may not have known it then, but he was setting the platform for me as a football analyst.”
Shebby’s successful career in Malaysian football stretched from 1978 to 1996. He won every domestic honour, including the Malaysia Cup, the FA Cup and League Championship. He was part of the KLFA team that won the Malaysia Cup three years in a row in the late 1980s.
He also enjoyed nine years of international football, including participating in three Asian Games, and was a SEA Games gold medallist in 1989. In addition, he has played against top professional clubs such as Bayern Munich, Hamburg SV, Aston Villa and Newcastle United.
At 36, he retired as a professional player, but continued to be a prominent face and voice for football. Today, he commutes between work commitments in Singapore and Malaysia every week.
A particularly good experience for Shebby was his stint as head coach of MyTeam. The idea behind the TV show was to select a team of soccer players with no professional playing experience, have them trained by a top coach and then pit them against the national 11. Season 1 of the show was aired in 2006, while Season 2 aired in 2007. MyTeam even made a trip to England, where the players were given an opportunity to play in Old Trafford against a Manchester United selection.
And guess what? It was a goalless game. “I am proud to say that I am the only Asian to put his team in Old Trafford and not lost,” says Shebby.
Shebby’s thoughts on Malaysian football are an open secret. His face darkens as he points out that Malaysia is technically in the third division of the Asian football league.
“Malaysian football lacks vision and there is no planning. It is going backwards and will continue to go backwards in the next 10 years if nothing happens. The Malaysian football team qualified for the Olympics in 1980. Look where it is today,” he exclaims.
He points out that there is no magic formula for football. “We must realise that we cannot pluck another Soh Chin Aun, R. Arumugam or Mokhtar Dahari from trees. We really need to sort out a coaching development programme,” he argues.
The biggest flaw in the system is that promising young footballers are not nurtured adequately. At present, Shebby says, not a single football association in Malaysia goes around scouting for talent. Without this, how can we hope that a 7-year-old here will develop into the next David Beckham?
“Football is handled by people who have no clue about the game, and for the wrong reasons. I doubt the sincerity of people inside football. The Football Association of Malaysia claims it knows football, but it doesn’t,” Shebby complains.
“The coaches are not improving their knowledge of the game. Football is evolving all the time, but there is no evolvement in Malaysian coach education. Sad to say there is no one to groom the current players. But the players are only as good as how they are taught.”
Shebby says coaches need to be ambitious. They should have a passionate desire to leave legacies, like what Sir Alex Ferguson has done for Manchester United or Arsene Wenger for Arsenal.
“I don’t see any change happening in Malaysian football unless a change in personnel takes place,” he says resolutely.
Shebby lives by the principles of honesty, hard work, ambition and humility. When it comes to work, he believes in giving his all and being bluntly honest. Thus, it isn’t surprising that he has stepped on a toe or two.
“I always want to be the best in what I do. For now, I want to be the best football pundit in the world. Perhaps eventually I would like to have my own football consultancy,” he says.
Despite his zeal for football, Shebby is at heart a simple person who defines happiness as being able to wake up each morning. The loves of his life are his two children, Natassha and Sonuljit, whom Shebby can hardly say no to. “I am number one, their best friend, then second, their father. Whatever decision they make, I will stand by them,” he adds.
Not surprisingly, he defines success for himself, as success for his children. “Money is important so that I can provide for my children. It is not an obsession.”
At the moment, he is enthusiastic about riding racing bicycles. He’s been hunting around for the niftiest racing bicycle. He has bicycles both in Singapore and Malaysia. If you happen to spot a lanky moustached guy on a racing bicycle on the Kesas Highway or Maju Expressway, that’s probably Shebby.
“Someday I would love to publish my autobiography, but there’s no time at the moment. I definitely think I have a story to tell,” he says.
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